Light painting is a very interesting technique in photography that predominantly uses artificial lights to illuminate a subject in low to zero ambient lighting conditions. By reading the first line you would no doubt have guessed that in order to do light painting, you need to shoot in the dark, ideally after sunset. It is true, but that does not mean that you always have to shoot in pitch black conditions. For example, even if there is some amount of twilight in the sky, you could get beautiful light painted images. It is about using your imagination, using the artificial light creatively in conjugation with whatever ambient light there is to get the best out of a situation.
Types of twilight and how you can use them in capturing light painted images
Speaking of twilight did you know there are three different types of twilight? Each is differentiated by the amount of ambient light there is in the sky. The first is civil twilight. This is the period up to about an hour after sunset, depending on which latitude you are in. There is plentiful ambient light in the sky. You could still auto-focus in this light, meter for the background and then use flash to illuminate your subjects. The image is an example of civil twilight.
The next is nautical twilight. This starts after about an hour the sun goes down. The sky is much darker but it is not completely pitch black. Nevertheless, you cannot auto-focus in this light. You will need some kind or artificial light, speedlights or strobes to help you focus.
The last type is astronomical twilight which is essentially associated with completely dark skies and no ambient light from natural sources. The image below is an example of astronomical twilight. The driftwood was light painted against an otherwise dark sky.
Gear for shooting light painted images
Obviously you need a camera and a lens. Those are the basic requirements. Contrary to popular believe you don’t always need a DSLR. You can shoot light painting with Point & Shoot cameras as well if it has a ‘Fireworks mode’. However, your options would be limited in terms of exposure duration.
Any lens will do for shooting light painting. However, if you have a fast prime lens it will certainly help in capturing a lot of light and allow you to use a smaller ISO number.
Apart from camera and lens you will need a tripod. It is a good idea to invest in a sturdy tripod very early in your career. You will need it more than you can imagine.
The actual painting process requires a source of light and artificial. There are hundreds of different lights that you could use. It does not have to be day-light balanced or anything like that. In fact the more colorful your lights are the better. People have captured excellent photos using burning steel wool. For some effects, however, like when you are painting an architecture or a natural object like an arch etc. a neutral light would be better in terms or proper white balancing.
Let’s start with the ISO settings first as that is the only bit that is more or less fixed, everything else will change according to the conditions and the result that you want. ISO setting should always be at the bare minimum that your camera can shoot in. Most cameras can shoot in ISO 200. Some cameras can go all the way to ISO 100. At such low ISOs the noise to signal ratio will be the minimum. If you want an image that you can edit and make into a large print then this is the setting that you should choose. Aperture value and shutter speed will depend on the conditions. There is no single setting that works.
Light painting requires that you use artificial lights to paint a subject or create an effect. That being said both the presence and absence of ambient light can have interesting effects on your composition. When you shoot in civil twilight you have the advantage of shooting with an interesting background. Your compositions should aim at capturing much of the sky along with the subject. In the image above the ambient light from the civil twilight creates a range of beautiful colors in the sky. To top it, the subject has used a light source to paint a figure over a longer exposure.
Creating a light orb
Light orbs are very easy to create once you get the hang of using an artificial light and master the concept of long exposure. You will need some LED lights for this. Christmas lights are perfect, if they come with a long cord to ensure that you can spin them easily and are powered by batteries. Get a bundle of these lights with cords at least two feet in length and a LED light at the end. Set your camera on a tripod. Set it to a long exposure of say 30 seconds. Pre-focus and then start spinning the lights. Depending on the result adjust the exposure to ensure you have the shot you had in mind.
Painting a natural or man-made object with a flashlight
A simple flash light is a great tool for light painting. It allows you to add texture, dimension and depth to your images without any ambient light whatsoever. The trick is not to use it bang from the front. Instead, use creative angles, like lying on your back and illuminating from the ground up, creating a side lighting or illuminating from the back.
Let’s say you are trying to photograph an old abundant building on a star-lit night. Imagine the effect that you want in the image. Accordingly, calculate the time you need for running around and painting the building. Set your camera for that exposure time. Press the shutter release and start painting the building.